The author (center) as a freshman in 1970. Photo courtesy of Stephan Russo
The college admissions scandal took another explosive turn last week with the news that a Chinese family had paid the private college counselor William Singer $6.5 million to get their daughter into Stanford, claiming she was a competitive sailor. As I’ve followed the news, I confess to feeling a bit uneasy. I harkened back to my own admissions trauma in the late 1960s. You see, I was a recruited athlete who, to this day, claims I never would have been become an Ivy League graduate if I were not really good at handling a lacrosse stick and scoring lots of goals. My alma mater will remain nameless, but the vivid memories of that time trigger a certain level of anxiety and insecurity to this day. The college admission system’s inequity and unfairness are nothing new.
I recently came across an article from an old colleague (also a fellow graduate) who has written extensively on the college admission process. He doesn’t deny that aspects of the system are crooked and the pressure parents feel is off the charts and unwarranted. But he contends that the American education system remains the envy of the world and defends universities for their system of triage as they compete to admit a diverse class with the right number of oboe players along with skilled athletes.
Besides, the failure to be admitted to one’s first choice hardly destines one to failure. Life is long and the path to personal happiness and fulfillment has many twists and turns. As a parent of two thirty-somethings, I can attest to that. I still believe that a college degree is the most powerful social justice equalizer.
I was a middle-class kid who grew up on Long Island and was oblivious to the turmoil of the times. My personal and political transformation would catch up with me a few years later when I left the confines of suburban living. My father was a small dressmaker — in the rag business, as they would say — who never attended college and escaped from the Brooklyn sidewalks to give his children “a better life.” He had little knowledge of the higher education world beyond completing high school.
Yet when the recruiting letters began to come in, both my parents didn’t hesitate to support the idea that I might find a school that would normally be beyond my reach. They arranged for a private SAT test prep tutor every Saturday so I could raise my scores. I took the exam three times with little change in the results. My guidance counselor took a look at my list of schools and said I was wasting my time.
But I knew the school where I wanted to go ever since I had seen their lacrosse team play a game at Adelphi University. I loved the color of their uniforms and dreamed of donning that same jersey some day.
I was a good high school player on a County semifinal team if not a star. The college coach had expressed interest in me and arranged to visit my house and meet with my parents. I will never forget when he sat himself down in my living room and began his pitch. He was bit of a goofy guy who wore a patched corduroy sports jacket and wool top hat. He said he’d love to have me play at his school but that I would have to raise my test scores. He encouraged me to apply early decision, said I wouldn’t be accepted early but would have a shot at regular admission. My response was, “Coach, you get me in and I’m coming!”
Well, he did get me in and the rest is history. Despite feeling that I didn’t belong (my long-haired freshman roommate took one look at me, with my crew cut, khaki pants and Brooks Brothers button-down when I entered our dorm room with a lacrosse stick and sneered), I ended up having a memorable college athletic career, and an intellectual experience which opened my eyes to the world beyond the locker room and deeply affected the life choices I have made.
There were others in my high school class with more stellar academic credentials who weren’t admitted and were resentful that the sports angle had given me a leg up. Nevertheless, they, too, went on to have successful careers, caring relationships and and happy lives. Isn’t that what really matters in the end?